The need for virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up possibilities for communication, collaboration, and interactive learning that we never thought possible. At the same time, it’s no secret that the unexpected switch to remote learning has negatively impacted the mental health of both teachers and students.
If there’s anything we’ve learned, mental wellness is key during COVID-19 and beyond. It’s crucial that schools build the capacity to support teacher and student well-being for the long run.
How to Support the Well-Being of Your Teachers
Teachers are burned out. A 2020 survey by the National Education Association found that 27% of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave the profession - this includes 55% of veteran teachers with 30+ years of experience and 20% of teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience.
How can schools better support your teachers?
1. Listen to them.
Ask teachers what they need and how they would feel most comfortable giving feedback. One option is to keep it anonymous (which can be a good way for you to see unbiased trends in their responses).
Then follow through. First, make it clear what mechanisms currently exist, from flexible working arrangements to wellness and technical support. Be open and honest about what is possible and do your best to make support available in a reasonable timeframe. With tensions already high, transparency is key.
2. Establish mentorships and peer support groups.
Lack of support is a major reason that between 40-50% of new teachers quit within their first five years on the job - which was true well before the pandemic.
When under stress, teachers need to feel they can speak to someone who understands them - and mentorship is often a mutually beneficial process, helping both mentors and mentees find purpose.
Teacher On Demand’s own Nicole Champion mentioned that her school benefits from weekly team meetings “where teachers can share their concerns and receive advice and constructive feedback in a positive environment.”
Remember that the key to student success is in well-resourced teachers. “For this to work,” Champion says, “administrators must put their heart in it.”
3. Help them focus on their purpose, accomplishments, and goals.
With so many teachers considering leaving the profession, it’s important to remind your staff of the reason they became educators in the first place.
Have each teacher write down their purpose, major accomplishments, and one goal - no matter how small - and keep it in a place they can always see it.
Ask department leaders to include ‘one thing you’re anxious, excited, and grateful for’ in team meetings. This can help teachers verbalize their feelings, feel heard, and get help faster when they need it.
4. Support clear boundaries between home and work.
Teachers are working longer hours than ever to keep above water, and the administration plays a critical role in creating healthy boundaries:
- Evaluate what meetings are truly necessary and minimize those that add stress rather than value.
- Reschedule admin activities like report writing to less busy times.
- Give more leeway in communications. Don’t expect immediate responses and uphold a weekend ban on emails to promote decompression.
- Hire additional teachers, substitutes, and assistants at peak times of the year. We can help!
How to Support the Well-Being of Your Students
Students are under a lot of stress, both in and outside of school, so it’s no wonder a Brookings study reveals that student learning outcomes have suffered from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
These practices are great for both administration and teachers, and administration can foster a culture where teachers feel supported implementing them in their classrooms.
1. Ask students how they learn best.
The best way to learn is to keep it interactive, as in this example of a math teacher who had her students build pillow forts, then measure their area, perimeter, and volume. Even days afterward, students continued logging into Zoom from their forts.
Making students active participants in their learning keeps them engaged, shows them how their knowledge is relevant, and helps them look forward to lessons. Ask your teachers to keep an eye out for methods that work and give them the resources to expand on them during lessons.
2. Keep lines of communication open.
Talk to students about their mental health with regular “booster shots,” as Teacher On Demand’s Ayanna Freelon puts it, asking if they are OK and using active listening skills. Many of us know how hard it can be to talk to a dear friend or family member, so be especially gentle and compassionate with students:
- Aim to lead them towards finding the solution to their own problem, and ask before sharing personal experience or advising them outright.
- Avoid phrases like "snap out of it," "get your act together" or "cheer up,” which can harm rather than help.
- Talk about self-care and encourage them to see a mental health professional if relevant.
- Costs and community stigma often bar students from seeking and receiving help, so do your best to set them up with resources within the school district.
3. Approach all situations with compassion.
Stressful situations will happen, so have a communication plan for teachers, parents, and students. Whether you’re dealing with tardiness, truancy, or disrespectful behavior, take into account a student’s pressures outside of school - from interpersonal to financial and health-related - and match the steps towards solving a problem to the scale of the issue.
4. Encourage culturally competent social and emotional learning (SEL).
Freelon has successfully integrated SEL principles into her lessons, reserving the last five minutes of every class for simple breathing exercises, which benefits both students’ and her own mental well-being.
At the same time, there is a conversation happening around how SEL can become more equitable and culturally competent. As Tony Weaver Jr. writes in EdSurge, “We can’t tell Black kids to take 10 deep breaths when people who look like them are dying because they can’t breathe.”
We encourage you to follow Dena Simmons, who is pioneering an antiracist approach to SEL with her organization, LiberatED.
5. Extend support systems beyond the pandemic.
Schools play a huge role in making systemic support, like access to psychologists, social workers, and counselors accessible to students.
Many of these professionals have continued working with students during the pandemic through phone calls or text. Develop a plan with all involved parties to keep this consistent even after students can return to schools to make sure students receive the support they need on their terms.
This may be especially relevant for older students who suffer from anxiety about entering a world where they have fewer economic and job opportunities in the wake of the pandemic.
Since many students suffer mental health issues quietly, consider taking inspiration from the hybrid asynchronous model as well as Oregon and Utah, two states that have enshrined a student’s right to mental health days.
How You Can Support Both Teachers and Students
In the wake of the pandemic, many of us are grieving lost possibilities, relatives, and a year of unfulfilled expectations. This grief comes in waves - and may well remain constant years into the future, including once it is safe for teachers and students to return to school full-time.
It’s crucial for schools to remain compassionate to the nonlinear nature of grief, making support available and encouraging people to take care of themselves even if it doesn’t feel convenient. This is a major part of creating healthy school communities that keep teachers happy at work, get students back on track, and help everyone thrive.